Cameron Kelly Rosenblum drew a tough Friend Friday slot: just a few days after an unsettled (and unsettling) election. But I am grateful she is here today because I think the messages of her essay are essential at this particular time. Please read on for more about how The Stepping Off Place (Quill Tree Books) came to be. Just a reminder: if you or anyone you love has thoughts of self-harm, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-8255.
Finding creativity is hard right now. As I write, we Americans wait. The fate of our nation sticks in our throat, between an inhale and exhale. The word unprecedented is a watercolor blur of its former self. But, I believe if we can tap into creativity now, it can be therapy, and the art that comes of it can comfort more than just ourselves.
On a personal scale, writing The Stepping Off Place (Quill Tree Books) began as that: me, comforting myself— a catharsis project to work my way through the baffling loss of a cherished friend. That friend who, I thought, had it all. The news that she took her own life at age 39— which I received months after the fact— threw me into an existential crisis. Suicide? Impossible.
Practically speaking, we hadn’t even been in the same room for twenty years. My present day friends, lovely and sympathetic, didn’t know her. I couldn’t begin to explain. For months I struggled privately, crying at odd times. I hauled memorabilia boxes from the basement to my bedroom closet, finding time after the kids were in bed to pore through old letters, photos, and drawings. The version of me that predated being a wife and mother, fanned around me like a peacock tail I’d forgotten I had.
Eventually, I found a poem I’d written for a graduate class called Arts and Society, part of my Creative Arts in Education Masters program at Lesley University. The poem itself — about this same friend and my sense of loss even then, simply because we’d grown up—was pretty bad. Still, it brought to mind the professor’s overarching premise: Art is effective therapy for children, yes, and also for society. Public monuments help us process grief collectively. We honor those lost with something solid and lasting, so their memory may live on. Memorials, of course, are for those left behind.
There was my lamppost in the woods, my way forward!
The poem, or finding it, gave me direction. I needed to use my art to build a monument to my friend—to our friendship.
I’d been writing middle grade for several years at that point and had improved my craft quite a bit, but hadn’t landed an agent or editor yet. In fact, I had reached the existential crisis in my publishing path, too. Did I want to keep writing even if getting published wasn’t going to happen? Was it worth it? The answer I found myself coming back to again and again was that I couldn’t not write. It was more than the act of storytelling, which I love all by itself, but it is a big part of how I make sense of this world. Of my life. Of my heart. I guess it makes me feel some sense of control when, as these teeter-totter days so relentlessly illustrate, we don’t have much control at all.
So, The Stepping Off Place became my place to grieve the unfathomable suicide of a larger than life friend, and also my place to honor my most foundational friendship— the one that defines big parts of who I am today. Writing it in a highly fictionalized form allowed me to explore the role I’d assigned myself back then: SIDEKICK, and to kick the tires on assumptions I’d relied on for years. What is “having it all,” anyway?
My research on mental illnesses and suicide brought context to and understanding of my friend’s hidden pain. Learning that between 80-90% of people treated for depression eventually respond well to therapies, while irrelevant for my friend, brought me an unexpected surge of urgency to my writing. I wanted people, especially teens, to know this. That several public libraries are using The Stepping Off Place as a discussion catalyst around the mental health crisis is everything. Everything.
I’m not sure if it was a conscious or unconscious decision that the characters in my story build monuments to their friend as a road to healing. I do know I cried at the end of writing it, when I said goodbye to my friend and felt closure in her loss at last.
Yes, finding our creativity is hard right now. But I think we can and need to keep looking. Not just for ourselves but for the readers who count on books to make sense of this world. Our creativity will be what lets us exhale. Creativity reminds us to hope.
~Cameron Kelly Rosenblum
CAMERON KELLY ROSENBLUM grew up in Connecticut. She studied English literature at Kenyon College and earned a master’s in education at Lesley University. Throughout her teens and early twenties, she filled journal after journal with anecdotes and characters she met, knowing someday she’d draw from these pages to write her novels. Currently, Cameron is a children’s librarian living on the coast of Maine with her husband and two children. The Stepping Off Place is her first book. Visit her online at www.cameronrosenblum.com, on Twitter @ckellyrose, or on Instagram @ckellyrosebooks.